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Why should there have to be a business case for boardroom equality?

Annie Peate

10 February 2012

Yesterday (9 February), Prime Minister David Cameron was in Stockholm for the second day of the Northern Future Forum Summit. The summit, which brings together Nordic-Baltic and UK governments, aims to join up leaders with experts, entrepreneurs and academics to common social and economic issues. High on this year’s agenda is the question of how to get more women into top positions and encourage more female entrepreneurs.

Of course, Sweden is the place to explore this problem. Back in March 2009 the country was able to boast 23% female representation on their boards compared with the UK’s 12.5%, and last year a ‘comply or explain’ code was introduced to combat gender discrimination. In fact, Cameron is sharing a platform with a number of states that have far more readily committed themselves to achieving gender parity in business. The UK runs the risk of looking like an all too familiar latecomer to the party.

So yesterday’s announcement by Cameron from the Northern Future Forum that more women in the boardroom will aid economic recovery and improve business performance came as little surprise to many. The positive link between diversity, in this case gender, and performance has long been proven and subsequently extolled by women’s organisations, third sector organisations, research bodies and even governmental departments (Lord Davies’ ‘Women on Boards’ report was published virtually a year ago to the day). To some, this declaration will be viewed as a positive indicator of the government’s renewed commitment to helping more women into more high level business positions and entrepreneurial activity. However to the rest (or perhaps, the cynics), it will represent little more than a half-hearted attempt to regain the support of female voters whilst pacifying the growing numbers of commentators criticising the lack of progress the UK is making in this area.

But an overwhelmingly disappointing inference remains: that for business to take the underrepresentation of women in the sector seriously, a basic individual right to fair and equal treatment has to be packaged into an attractive business incentive, or model.

Women should be recruited and promoted based on the recognition of their ability to perform and contribute as well as men. If Cameron’s intention was to encourage big business leaders to pursue greater gender diversity, this tactic may work. However, if he wishes to win back female votes, Stockholm Syndrome may be the best he can hope for.